Twelve O’Clock High (1949)    3 Stars

“A story of twelve men as their women never knew them…”

Twelve O'Clock High (1949)
Twelve O’Clock High (1949)


Director: Henry King

Cast: Gregory Peck, Hugh Marlowe, Gary Merrill

Synopsis: A hard-as-nails general takes over a bomber unit suffering from low morale and whips them into fighting shape.







In time of war, movies are forced to deliver a sanitised version of the conflict in order not to damage public morale. They’re full of selfless heroism amidst stirring patriotic speeches, and essentially present a wholly unrealistic version of life under battle conditions. A movie like Henry King’s Twelve O’Clock High, the first to examine the psychological stress placed upon on an air crew called upon to fly repeated missions over enemy territory, could never have been made before 1945, and must have had quite an impact when it was released in 1950. There’s little sentiment in the movie, and while there is an understandable sense of a pat on the back for the key characters (most of whom are based on real-life people), there’s a sobering lack of triumphalism in its handling.

While Gregory Peck (Roman Holiday, To Kill a Mockingbird) has never impressed me as an actor, he finds the perfect vehicle for his limited talent in General Frank Savage, a tough leader of men who hides his feelings behind a stone wall of remote authoritarianism. He’s called in to sort out the 918th, a “hard luck” bomber unit which is losing men and planes despite its members sharing a strong bond under the paternal leadership of Keith Davenport (Gary Merrill – All About Eve, The Black Dakotas). Savage’s methods are in direct contrast to Davenport’s, and spark instant resentment amongst the flight crews, all of whom put in for a transfer. In order to gain time to win over the men’s loyalty, Savage persuades Major Harvey Stovall (Dean Jagger – Revolt of the Zombies, The Kremlin Letter) to delay the processing of those transfer requests…

Twelve O’Clock High would have you believe that the Americans operating out of Britain ‘stood alone’ in their pursuit of daytime bombing tactics of German heavy industry when, in fact, the RAF had already considered doing the same but had dismissed the idea as too costly in terms of men and machinery. The practice has since been discredited by many as a costly failure, but that doesn’t detract from the bravery of the men who flew repeated missions in the knowledge that casualty rates were high. The psychological toll was also high, and although Savage’s highly questionable methods are eventually proven successful, the film leaves the viewer in no doubt that it’s impossible for men of any rank to separate duty from emotion. Twelve O’Clock High remains a powerful movie, its impact heightened by a complete absence of a musical score (apart from over the credits), and the use of authentic footage of aerial combat.
(Reviewed 1st July 2015)

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